Relishing the Idea of a Post-Castro Cuba
MEET THE FORREST GUMP OF CUBAN COMMUNISM, Óscar Espinosa Chepe. Like the character played by Tom Hanks in the 1994 film, Chepe has spent the past half-century having the good (as well as the bad) fortune of being wherever the action is.
A proud, upright figure, Chepe was a young guerrilla leader in Fidel Castro’s army when the rebels came out of the mountains and seized power from the corrupt Fulgencio Batista 50 years ago this January. Twice he rose high in the government, but twice he also challenged official dogma and fell from grace. Now he is a pro-American economist in Havana, living in the shadowlands of the dissident community and telling his life story.
A pro-American economist living in Havana, Óscar Espinosa Chepe spent time in Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay prison.
In the early 1960s, after graduating from the University of Havana, Chepe joined Cuba’s elite economic advisory team. He was immediately sent to Pyongyang, North Korea, where he spent a year traversing the country and chatting regularly with Kim Il-sung, the country’s self-styled “Great Leader.”
Chepe describes North Korea as being even then a “terrible, crazy, awful place,” where the people ate grass and leaves. Kim, having decreed that his country folk were all vegetarians, imported cattle from Cuba for his own personal consumption.
In 1965, Chepe told Fidel Castro that his entire economic policy — collectivizing farmland, relying on Soviet foreign aid and following Marxism to the letter to ensure all Cubans were equally poor — was rubbish. Evidently in a good mood that day, Castro declined to chop off his head, choosing instead to ship off the recalcitrant young man to the west of the island, where he spent three years collecting bat dung in a cave, then shoveling manure on a pig farm. After being politically rehabilitated in the early 1970s, Chepe was let back into the political sheepfold and told to help run the country’s Sugar Ministry.
He became a diplomat and worked on economic and scientific issues for Cuba with Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary, and between 1979 and 1984 he was the economic counselor at the Cuban embassy in Belgrade. But Chepe says Castro noticed him at the embassy during a trip to Belgrade in 1984, remembered him as a “troublemaker” and ordered him home at once. Chepe hasn’t been outside Cuba since. He went to work at the Central Bank of Cuba, where he headed up tourism and domestic trade, before being fired in 1996, again for questioning official economic dogma. He continued writing and studying, and for five years until 2001 he had his own radio show, “Chatting with Chepe,” heard in both Cuba and Miami. He lost the show, and his physical freedom, in one of Cuba’s periodic crackdowns on dissidents. British and American diplomatic pressure gained his release, officially on grounds of ill health, after he had served 19 months of a 20-year sentence. He was in Cuba’s very own Guantanamo Bay prison — a nastier version of the American prison of the same name.
CLEARLY CHEPE IS unrepentant, for he recently talked openly to a foreign journalist in the Comedor de Aguiar, the grandest restaurant in the grandest hotel in Havana, the Nacional. The food there is terrible, as always since the revolution, but the conversation was five-star. His second wife, Miriam, an engaging, attractive woman who speaks English more fluently than her husband, accompanied Chepe, who chomped away on oysters and a rib-eye steak.
Both Chepe and his wife ate easily and talked openly, discussing Cuba’s manifold economic and political woes. What does he think of Castro? “Fidel Castro is just an enormous ego,” says Chepe. “He sees communism not as a movement to aspire to, but as a great tool to accomplish what he wanted to achieve, which is everlasting power and, if possible, to rule the world. He isn’t ideological — he just wants the power.”
How did Castro react when he had his economic wisdom rubbished by an underling? “He didn’t yell, but he was very upset and his voice got very loud and his eyebrows very bushy indeed,” says Chepe. “He told me that I was wrong, and I told him that all I was expressing to him was what I had learned at the University of Havana. Usually people said what Castro wanted to hear. You were supposed to acquiesce, but I was just being honest to my beliefs.”
Three years spent alone among Cuba’s pigs and bats gave Chepe time to think. In the 1970s, he saw the country’s economy falter and start to shrink. Cuba had literally nothing to sell but sugar. Not even the Albanians would buy its shoddily made tractors. “Fidel Castro said we would go beyond capitalism, and we did, but we went in the wrong direction,” says Chepe. “What we got was much worse.”
“I’m not a Communist anymore,” he adds. “I lost faith in the revolution more than 30 years ago. The Castro regime is Taliban-like in its thinking. They don’t want change. Like the Taliban, they know that if they change anything, it will lead to political change, and they are scared of that.”
THE NEW AMERICAN president, Barack Obama, may provide the change the Castros say they want: an end to Washington’s trade embargo and possibly formal diplomatic relations.
Chepe and his wife, Miriam; former Cuban leader Fidel Castro (l.) and his brother Raul Castro, who heads the country now.
Paradoxically, such kind treatment could de-legitimize the Castros. The embargo has provided them with a perfect catch-all excuse as to why, after more than 50 years of economic and social revolution, Cuba is the world’s 137th-richest economy, ranked below Albania and Swaziland. In 1958, Cuba ranked 22nd in per capita gross domestic product, close to Italy.
Stephen Wilkinson, an academic at the International Institute for the Study of Cuba at London Metropolitan University, says the Castro regime would face “a bewildering challenge to its identity” if the trade ban was lifted, while former Spanish Premier Jose Maria Aznar believes a lifting of the embargo would force Castro out of power in less than three months.
In a way, the embargo already is broken, and Castro has become embarrassingly dependent on the one country he continues to pillory. Thanks to a U.S. law passed in the 1990s, Cuba now imports nearly 40% of its food and most of its telecommunications equipment directly from American firms.
Cuba cozies up to any foreign nation bearing hard cash. China’s leaders have promised $4 billion in food aid, and Russia is sniffing around. But no other country wields quite the same clout in modern Cuba as oil-rich Venezuela, with its leader, Hugo Chávez. Castro and Chávez have been close for years. After Chávez was released from a two-year spell in jail in 1994, Castro gave him a base and financial support. Now Cuba and Venezuela help one another. Venezuela ships 96,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba. Havana pays less than $20 for each barrel of crude — a generator of significant savings when a free-market barrel costs $50, and a stone-cold steal when it retailed at $150. In return, Cuba ships tens of thousands of doctors and nurses to Venezuela’s poorest regions, providing Chávez with a working national health service.
Around 40,000 Cuban doctors are working overseas — three-quarters in Venezuela, and the rest at hospitals from China, India and Pakistan to Malaysia, Nigeria and South Africa. Cuban heart doctors are on duty in hospitals in Riyadh, Dubai and Doha. European governments hire Cubans to staff hospitals in their former colonies.
The doctors-for-hard-cash plan works well: In 2007 the fledgling industry earned Cuba $6 billion, more than the $4 billion earned from nickel and oil combined. Health services have become Cuba’s leading export, overtaking tourism. (Cuba continues to develop oil resources of its own, and may have 20 billion untapped barrels.)
Cuba now trains about 30,000 doctors a year — more than any European nation. It costs less than $10,000 to train an eye or cancer doctor in Cuba, compared with a minimum of $250,000 in America. Last year, 100 medical trainees traveled to Cuba from poor American states, including Mississippi and Alabama, paid for by a group called Pastors For Peace.
It is a source of great pleasure and propaganda for Cuba that a small, impoverished nation offers universal health coverage to its citizens while nearly 50 million Americans lack basic medical insurance.
Cuban doctors’ foreign assignments do mean fewer doctors at home, though. There are reports of civil unrest in poorer areas of the island as health-service quality declines. And Cuban medics abroad are hardly free to travel. Most of what each medic earns is retained by the state or kept in a secure account in order to prevent doctors defecting while on duty.
Fidel Castro didn’t trust his own medical service for himself: A Spanish doctor was summoned when Castro’s life was in danger.
EARLIER THIS DECADE, Chepe again found himself incarcerated. In 2001, Cuba’s leading dissident, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, founded an organization called the Barilla Project, intended to force a vote on the island’s future leadership. Under Cuba’s constitution, a petition with 10,000 signatures can force a referendum. Chepe, a Barilla Project member from the outset, reckons that more than 20,000 signatures had been received when the police arrived. The authorities accused Chepe of holding $13,600 in U.S. currency and of working with the U.S. Interests Section, America’s de facto embassy in Cuba. Chepe denied and still denies the charges.
Although Chepe’s sentence of imprisonment in Cuba’s Guantanamo was cut short because of pressure from the U.S., Britain and the United Nations, he suffered from jaundice and kidney failure, brought on by poor diet and infected drinking water. He does say, though, that he was comparatively well-treated. Others from the Barilla Project who were jailed — in what was the first major political crackdown since 1989 — were brutalized by fellow prisoners on the order of prison guards.
Judging by his appetite at the Comedor de Aguiar restaurant, Chepe is again hale and hearty. There is a twinkle in his eyes as he talks, particularly when he mentions Barack Obama. Here, he declares, is an American president able to fight the Cuban leader merely by doing the right thing, and by breaking down walls rather than building new ones.
“Castro is so worried about Obama,” says Chepe. “For so many years they have had this enemy, America. Castro has been able to tell the people that American Marines will come to the island and kill them all. This lie won’t work anymore. Obama could mean the end for Castro.” The Forrest Gump of Cuba — a man who may again be in the right place at the right time — would like to see that.